Veterans Affairs is spending an additional $4 million on advertising this year — including television spots throughout the NHL playoffs — but ignoring the plight of families who care for injured soldiers, says the spouse of a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.
An angry Jenifer Migneault chased after Julian Fantino and demanded to speak to the veterans affairs minister following his appearance Thursday at a House of Commons committee hearing.
The spectacle played out before a crush of reporters, television cameras and microphones in a scene reminiscent of Fantino's testy encounter last winter with veterans angry about the closure of federal offices.
"We're nothing to you," Migneault said, throwing her arms up in frustration when Fantino — whose image took a bruising in the last encounter — and his staff chose not to stop and explain the government's position.
"I'm offended," an embittered Migneault said afterward.
"A man like that is supposed to be so proud of my husband's service? C'mon, that's a joke.… We're the ones who live 24 hours a day with their heroes."
'Use that money to talk to us'
The Harper government has poured millions of extra dollars into veterans benefits and services, but the challenges faced by caregivers represent a major funding gap, one that has received little public attention.
Migneault, whose husband, Claude Rainville, was diagnosed with PTSD eight years ago, has tried to raise awareness, but she said she can't get Conservative MPs — including Fantino's parliamentary secretary, Parm Gill — to return her calls.
The spouses of physically and mentally wounded soldiers need training and support to be caregivers, said Migneault.
Most of what she's learned has been on her own, including a 40-hour class to help her better understand when best to simply listen to her husband, and when to intervene.
The money being spent on increased advertising should go elsewhere, Migneault said.
"Please just use that money to talk to us," she said.
"We'll tell you a whole lot about our husbands that you guys don't know about. Spend the money in the right place and you'll see real results."
Nick Bergamini, a spokesman for Fantino, said in an email to CBC News that he couldn't discuss individual cases for privacy reasons, "except to say that we reached out to this veteran two weeks ago to ensure they are aware of all the programs available to them."
Ads needed to dispel 'misinformation'
During his testimony, Fantino defended the spending increase, saying the ads are an attempt by the government to communicate directly with veterans and dispel what he called "misinformation" surrounding the treatment of ex-soldiers.
"We are faced with the bantering that goes back and forth about what is — or isn't [covered]; what facts and non-facts are; and also the fear mongering, " Fantino told the committee.
He described the information battle as one of the government's "biggest challenges."
Still, neither Fantino nor his deputy minister could say how much the advertising increase is going toward expensive prime-time ads during playoff hockey games — or how much each commercial is costing.
The opposition parties accused the government of promoting itself at the expense of improved programs and benefits.
Ads emphasize transition to civilian life
Liberal critic Frank Valeriote pointed out that this year's federal budget increased transition services for veterans by only $11,000.
"I'm wondering how you can justify for us your department spending more on advertising — a $4-million increase in advertising — and less on the actual programs themselves," Valeriote said.
The TV ads emphasize efforts to move soldiers smoothly from military to civilian life, even though the federal government often relies on independent agencies, such as the Veterans Transition Network and Canada Command, to build those bridges for individuals.
Critics within the veterans community have said the ads are misleading and give the impression the government is doing more than it actually is.